ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The injured reserve is much like a cemetery for an NFL roster. Often a grim, depressing “place” where players’ seasons typically go to die for the year, there is rarely any positivity coming from the daunting designation.

The Denver Broncos, however, are an exception to this in 2017.

Instead of the dreary designation that it is, the Broncos, led by John Elway’s mastery, are treating the IR as a waiting room, holding talent for the future.

Less than a quarter into Denver’s first preseason game, rotational defensive lineman Billy Winn got tangled in a pile of players, tearing his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and damaging other ligaments in his knee. Just a few plays into Winn’s season, it was over, with a season-long trip to the IR in Winn’s future.

Winn’s misfortune is a typical example of why, and how, most players end up on the doom list. For the Broncos, however, Winn is the exception, not the rule. At least as of now.

Denver currently has two other players on the IR outside of Winn: starting outside linebacker—and former first-round pick—Shane Ray and rookie third-round pick wide receiver Carlos Henderson. While it’s not ideal that either are on the list—as it means they will miss at least some regular season action—Elway’s brilliant use of the IR in both cases lightens otherwise dark scenarios.

In the case of Henderson, he’ll have to wait until his sophomore season until he can play again as he was placed on season-ending IR. So, how can there be positives when a talented player is forced to miss an entire year?

For Henderson, it boils down to this: he wasn’t likely going to see much of the playing field this year anyway. As a third-round pick in April, at a position of need, the initial thought was that Henderson could have an impact in both Denver’s offense and special teams during his rookie year.

However, as the offseason progressed, it became clear that the learning curve was significant as the Louisiana Tech product transitioned from a non-Power Five conference, Conference USA, to the NFL. Because of this, it seemed as if Henderson would take a year to learn the NFL before seeing much playing time.

On top of that, in Henderson’s first, and only, preseason game—in which he sustained the injury that put him on season-ending IR—he fumbled two kickoffs. Although he recovered both, it put doubt on his ability to be an effective special-teams contributor this season. After the game, it was discovered that Henderson tore a ligament in his left thumb and later underwent surgery.

Although the exact timetable for his recovery was never released to the public, by the time Henderson would have been able to come back, he would have likely been so far behind in his progression that he wouldn’t have been able to catch up enough to play this year.

So, Elway and Co. put Henderson on season-ending IR to free up a roster spot, while keeping him in the organization and allowing him time to recover from his injury and also catchup with the playbook. Essentially, for Henderson, 2017 is a redshirt season without using a roster spot on a player that was likely not going to play anyway.

While other teams have utilized the IR for similar purposes in the past, as the Broncos did with Henderson, what Elway did with Ray is truly masterful.

Just days into training camp, it was determined that the Broncos’ pass rushing specialist tore a ligament in his left wrist that required surgery. What was initially believed to be a six-to-eight week recovery, according to Vance Joseph, putting him back on the field in the middle to end of September, apparently was delayed a few weeks.

Instead of keeping Ray on the roster and using one of the 53 valuable spots on a player that wouldn’t be able to play at the start of the season, Elway decided to use the IR to his advantage.

“With the surgery—it kinds of falls good for us and here is why we decided to go that way: He has to be on IR for eight weeks. Our [Week 5] bye week counts, and then our [Week] 8 game is on a Monday night. With that being on a Monday night, the eighth Sunday counts as a game. We’ll get him back for the [Week 8] Kansas City game. He’s only going to miss six games,” Elway said. “We didn’t want to use that spot. He’s not going to be back any earlier than that. When he does come back, he’ll really be ready to go. Having that fall that way for us, it helped us with that extra slot.”

Essentially, Elway made the mandatory eight-week IR turn into six games and opened up a roster spot for over a third of the season in the process. Sure, the schedule fell perfectly for the Broncos in this situation—with the bye week coming in the first eight weeks and their eighth game falling on Monday instead of Thursday or Sunday of that week—but Elway recognized the IR rules and took full advantage of it.

In a business where every yard matters, finding even the smallest advantages matters, and when it comes to the 53-man roster, coaching staffs value every spot as gold.

While teams occasionally use the IR to their advantage, the IR rarely becomes a great asset. At the start of the 2017 season, the Broncos, led by Elway, have mastered the IR, turning it from a place of doom to an advantage.

  • In this age of so many injuries in the NFL, the IR should be revamped to allow more players to return from IR during the season, similar to baseball. The NFL is a sport of starters. Teams that don’t have their starters are put at too big of a disadvantage. With only 16 regular season games, teams have to be at their best to put on a good show every week.

    I realize that front offices can use that flexibility to their advantage, I think the quality of games is more important than potential gamesmanship. Maybe if there was a required independent NFL exam before a player is put on IR in the first place, the gamesmanship would be limited.

    • Zac Stevens

      It’s a very good point, Roger. The league doesn’t like change so it will be interesting to see if and when they explore this.

      Having the best players on the field and available is good for every party.